Last night, voters in Iowa gathered in groups based on their preferred nominees and attempted to persuade their neighbors to abandon candidates who wouldn't reach the required threshold to be a viable candidate for president. After rounds of voting and persuading and more voting, the results were calculated and sent from 1,700 locations across the state. If that sounds like a complicated way to decide on a candidate, imagine how much more complicated it was thanks to a new, and not thoroughly tested, app.
More than half a day later, we still have no idea who won the Iowa Caucus, because the technology used for reporting results to the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) apparently failed. Specifically, an app purchased by IDP known as Shadow is being singled out for the delays.
That app was developed by a company founded by a pair of alumni from Hilary Clinton's 2016 primary campaign. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Shadow is an affiliate of Acronym, a nonprofit focused on advancing progressive causes that was started by a former digital producer for President Obama's campaigns.
As criticism heated up, Acronym was quick to distance itself from Shadow. The organization's CEO, Tara McGowan, released a statement on Twitter stating that her organization is simply one of many investors in Shadow. Still, just last year, she announced Acronym was launching Shadow in relation to its acquisition of voter management tools.
Here are the facts about @anotheracronym's relationship to @ShadowIncHQ, an independent company ACRONYM invested in. We don't have any information beyond the public statements the IDP has put out + like all of you, eagerly await learning what happened and who won the IA caucus. https://t.co/sWohZqZkPe-- Tara McGowan (@taraemcg) February 4, 2020
According to The New York Times, the app was built in just two months and wasn't tested statewide before Monday's caucuses. That's a striking omission for a piece of technology that people are depending on to help pick a nominee for the highest office in our government. Adding to the controversy is the fact that the app is being framed as part of a strategy for "building a long-term, side-by-side 'Shadow' of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large."
If your goal is to build a new tech infrastructure for anything, it seems reasonable that you might test it a lot before its most important implementation. Otherwise, you could end up with exactly what happened last night.
"We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results. In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to validate that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report," said Iowa Democratic Party communications director Mandy McClure in a written statement.
For a few hundred years, people in this country have voted in a decidely low-tech manner, with some version of pen and paper ballots. For example, in Michigan, ballots are marked by pen and fed into a paper tabulator. Results from those tabulators are then downloaded to flash drives, which are then transmitted to the county offices via a secure computer that is used solely for that purpose. The computer and drives are then physically transported to the county offices.
The only benefit to introducing a technology like Shadow is that you get the results quicker. Sure, the media and campaigns have a vested interest in faster results, but at what cost? In an age where election security isn't a hypothetical concern, with outside forces trying to influence the outcome, it seems like we should get the technology right. Or, at the very least, test it first. Anything less is simply asking for chaos.